T-Time: NIT exit is fitting end for USC basketball

Trevor Denton | Daily Trojan

For USC basketball, it was a season tainted by mishap after mishap. 

It all started with assistant coach Tony Bland’s arrest by the FBI in September. He, along with 10 other coaches and sports agents, was charged with facilitating bribes to prospective players. Bland was fired in January after a lengthy internal investigation.

The season ended with an embarrassing second-round exit from the NIT on Monday.

When the Bland rumors started brewing before the season even started, head coach Andy Enfield tried to save face and lead a loaded squad into a highly anticipated campaign. But where there was smoke, there was simply too much fire.

Standout sophomore guard De’Anthony Melton was tangled in the mess from the very beginning. Reports indicated that a close family friend may have received a $5,000 payment from a sports agent. USC kept him out all season as a precautionary measure, and then outright suspended him in January, despite Melton himself never actually being accused of any wrongdoing.

Players such as junior forward Chimezie Metu reacted acrimoniously to the news and tension mounted. Melton promptly left the program for good, and started preparing for the NBA Draft. Incoming five-star recruit Taeshon Cherry — who may have also been paid at some point — saw the turmoil and flipped his commitment from USC to Arizona State.

Fast forward to last month, when Metu and fellow junior forward Bennie Boatwright were also alleged to have received improper benefits, according to a Yahoo Sports report. Unlike Melton, they were never ruled ineligible by the USC athletic department, but it hardly mattered. Boatwright suffered a season-ending knee injury in February and Metu decided not to play in the second round of the NIT Tournament, electing to preserve himself for the NBA Draft, for which he will certainly declare.

At times it did seem like the Trojans’ play would quiet some of the off-court noise and make up for a year filled with headaches and shortcomings. They overcame a mediocre 9-4 start to the season, and began their first 10 Pac-12 contests with an impressive 8-2 mark. They even shook off a regular season finale loss to UCLA, and made it to the finals of the Pac-12 Tournament (where they eventually lost to top-seed Arizona, another school that’s dealt with its fair share of off-court troubles this season).

An NCAA Tournament berth seemed imminent. Runners-up in major conferences almost always land a spot in the big dance. But USC was snubbed, instead relegated to the NIT, while Pac-12 ninth place finisher Arizona State and third place UCLA made it, only to lose in the First Four.

At first, I was angry about USC not earning a bid in the tournament. I tried to rationalize why they didn’t make it, arguing that the committee harbored an agenda against teams with spotty off-the-court reputations (Oklahoma State and Louisville, two teams with impressive resumes, but potential sanctions on the way, were also left out). When Arizona State and UCLA lost in play-in games, I was downright furious.

But after USC lost to Western Kentucky 75-79 in the second round of the NIT Tournament on Monday, I no longer have anything to be angry about. For all of their off-court issues, the Trojans possessed an equal number of on-the-court problems. All season, they frequently blew late leads, shot inconsistently and mismanaged the clock. It all culminated in their final loss of the season, in which USC blew a lead with just under three minutes left. In a tournament USC supposedly had no business being in, the team still fell short.

As a result, the program no longer has to worry about the NCAA vacating wins if they find that the Trojans fielded ineligible players, because USC won nothing of any substance this year. There was little to show for all the pre-season hype and subsequent strife. Only more disappointment layered atop disappointment.

Now, the future looks bleak for USC basketball, just as it did when Enfield arrived at a downtrodden program back in 2013.

Next year, there won’t be burgeoning stars like Melton or Cherry to count on to lead the team into a new generation. Senior guards Jordan McLaughlin and Elijah Stewart, who led USC to three consecutive NCAA Tournaments, won’t be there to provide their steady veteran leadership. And of course, Boatwright and Metu, the team’s most talented players, will be nowhere to be found. They’ll be competing in the NBA, far, far away from the threat of NCAA punishment. It’s almost surprising Metu didn’t get his foot out of the door any sooner.

As USC heads into next season, they sit in no man’s land — even if sanctions don’t cripple the program, the Trojans will have trouble replenishing enough talent to be competitive, and Enfield’s job security will be called into question regardless. Freshman forward Jordan Usher and sophomore guards Derryck Thornton and Jonah Mathews showed flashes of brilliance in 2017-18, but they will all have to take significant leaps for the Trojans to be competitive in the near future.

So, this could be the end of another agonizingly short period of success for USC basketball. It would be convenient to blame the NCAA, Bland, or the tournament committee for not giving the Trojans a chance.

But the team beat itself this season, just as it did on Monday.

Trevor Denton is a sophomore majoring in journalism. He is also the sports editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “T-Time,” runs Wednesdays.